CHINA HAS LONG been steadily losing farmland to urbanization, soil erosion and environmental degradation. Now authorities say 3.33 million hectares of the arable land the country still has are too polluted to grow crops. By way of comparison, that is an area almost equal to the size of Taiwan. Vice-minister for land and resource Wang Shiyuan says “tens of billions of yuan” is being thrown at pilot projects to rehabilitate contaminated land and water supplies tainted by the same source.
Officials are particularly concerned about toxic metals getting into the food chain. This Bystander has heard reports of rice being sold in Guangzhou that contains dangerous levels of cadmium. Once in the ground, such metals can persist for years, and government land surveys are still turning up traces of pesticides banned in the 1980s.
China is skirting the 120 million hectares of farmland considered to be the minimum needed to ensure the country’s food security. A newly released national land survey says the country’s arable land was down to 135.4 million hectares as of the end of 2012. The current five-year plan calls for more than 50 million hectares of new farmland to be created by 2020, so every little bit of reclaimed contaminated land helps.
The numbers affected by the drought in southwestern China continues to edge up. Officials say that 12.6 million people are now short of water while 6.25 million hectares of farmland have been left parched as rivers and reservoirs dry up across Yunan (seen above in a photograph taken on Sept. 7th), Guizhou, Hunan, Sichuan and Chongqing. At the end of last month, 12 million people were said to be facing water shortages. Relief teams have been deployed across the region to ensure emergency water supplies while local officials are being instructed to prevent food shortages. Light rain is in the forecast for the next three days but it will likely provide scant relief from the arid spell and high temperatures that have persisted since July.
China has already gone abroad to secure supplies of energy and minerals by investing in mines and oil fields, so why not do the same for food? The Beijing Morning Post quotes Xie Guoli, a senior trade promotion official with the agriculture ministry, as saying that China is looking at leasing farmland in Russia, South America and Australia.
China already has rice farm joint ventures in Cuba and Mexico. High international grain prices could be pushing Beijing to consider doing the same on a larger scale and for more foods. How seriously it is pursuing the idea remains to be seen, but there is one reason for doing so beyond high import prices.
Very big, China, as Noel Coward famously said, but it is also running out of farm land. Arable land was reduced by 40,700 hectares to 121.7 million hectares last year, mainly because of urbanization. That is close to the minimum of 120 million hectares Beijing has said it regards as needed.